McDonnell Invokes His N.Va. Roots

Robert McDonnell greets Paula Latchford, a former neighbor, at a rally in Annandale. The gubernatorial hopeful grew up in Fairfax County.
Robert McDonnell greets Paula Latchford, a former neighbor, at a rally in Annandale. The gubernatorial hopeful grew up in Fairfax County. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 16, 2009

Robert F. McDonnell grew up in a neighborhood of military and government families not far from Mount Vernon, where his mother organized tours. He worked summers as a busboy and caddy at Fort Belvoir. He played football at Bishop Ireton High School, once scoring a touchdown against the undefeated T.C. Williams team celebrated in "Remember the Titans." And in 1976, McDonnell married a Redskins cheerleader from McLean.

It was a pretty typical Northern Virginia childhood and one that the Republican constantly focuses on in his gubernatorial campaign, which hinges in part on whether he can convince area voters that he understands their problems and knows how to fix them. McDonnell has spent almost half his time campaigning in Northern Virginia, has mailed 10 brochures and has spent more than $1 million on television ads in the region.

At his official kickoff rally in Annandale in the spring, McDonnell said he has firsthand knowledge of the area's unique issues and shares its residents' values. "I was raised in Fairfax County by a dad who was a World War II veteran and a mom who balanced family and work," he said. "Growing up in Northern Virginia, I learned from them the values that have lasted a lifetime."

But Northern Virginia has changed dramatically since McDonnell left for college in 1972. Fairfax's population has more than doubled to 1.1 million, and foreign-born residents have increased from 3 percent to almost 30 percent. Tysons Corner was mostly farmland in the early 1970s, and many of today's vital commuter routes, including the Dulles Toll Road and Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway, were years from being built.

As it has grown, the region has become increasingly liberal and is the main reason Democrats have won several recent statewide races and turned the once reliably Republican state into a national battleground.

That could pose a challenge to McDonnell, whose conservative social positions -- he opposes abortion in all instances except when the life of the mother is in danger and favors a ban on same-sex civil unions -- could turn off many area voters.

In vote-rich Northern Virginia, Democrat R. Creigh Deeds is leading McDonnell 45 percent to 42 percent, according to a new Washington Post poll. Deeds handily won his party's primary in June, and against two candidates who live in Northern Virginia, the rural Bath County resident carried the region.

Deeds said McDonnell's priorities are out of touch with the region's voters on social issues, roads and education. He has sought to highlight McDonnell's position on abortion, having held a rally on the issue Monday in Annandale.

"This election is not about where you're from, it's about what you stand for," Deeds said.

McDonnell has played down his conservative views, focusing on proposals that address such quality-of-life issues as transportation and education, both of which were announced in Northern Virginia.

Standing on a parking deck overlooking I-66, he pledged to widen the highway inside and outside the Beltway and set aside a portion of sales tax collections in the region for road projects. At George Mason University, he said he would put the state on a course to award 119,000 additional associate's and bachelor's degrees in the next 15 years.

He acknowledges the vast changes in Northern Virginia since he left for college, but he says that he has continued to travel regularly to visit his father and his wife's family in the area and that he understands the concerns of its voters.

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