Thesis Controversy Builds as Robert F. McDonnell (R) Tries to Move On

"This campaign to me is not about a 20-year-old thesis," says gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell (R).
"This campaign to me is not about a 20-year-old thesis," says gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell (R). (By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
By Amy Gardner and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Republican Robert F. McDonnell's 20-year-old master's thesis continued to consume the Virginia governor's race Tuesday, with Democrat R. Creigh Deeds presenting the paper as his opponent's true beliefs and McDonnell insisting otherwise.

The Deeds campaign brought out four former Republican lawmakers who said the views expressed in the thesis mirrored the positions they saw McDonnell take again and again in the General Assembly. McDonnell reiterated that some of his views have changed, particularly regarding women in the workforce, and attempted to change the subject to education.

At issue is a 93-page research paper titled "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of the Decade," in which McDonnell laid out a conservative action plan to promote the traditional family in government. McDonnell wrote against working women, feminists and homosexuals, and he decried the absence of religion in the public schools, the rise of single motherhood and the creation of tax credits for child care to encourage mothers to work.

He submitted the thesis in 1989, two years before he was elected to the House of Delegates, while pursuing public policy and law degrees at Regent University in Virginia Beach.

Deeds has been highlighting McDonnell's conservatism for months, but his campaign pounced on the thesis as further evidence of it after details from the paper were first published Sunday in The Washington Post. On Tuesday, the four former lawmakers, who had previously announced their support for Deeds, used the thesis to talk about McDonnell's record. "It's the Bob I've always known,'' said former senator Martin E. Williams (Newport News). "My biggest shock is that he is running away from it, because I really do think it's who is he is."

Deeds made no direct comment Tuesday; he was in California raising money for his campaign.

McDonnell's most prominent female supporter, Democratic businesswoman Sheila Johnson, dismissed Deeds's attacks over the thesis and said she was sticking to her view that the Republican would be a better steward of the economy.

McDonnell tried to steer attention away from the thesis by appearing at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria to unveil a plan to pump more dollars into Virginia classrooms by diverting money away from inefficiencies and "bureaucracy."

But the Republican was greeted by television reporters who lobbed question after question at him about whether he still held the views he espoused in the paper. McDonnell appeared prepared for the barrage, surrounding himself with female supporters carrying pink "Women for McDonnell" signs.

"Listen, this campaign to me is not about a 20-year-old thesis," he said. "This campaign is about who's got the best ideas about jobs and the economy and transportation and education. These are the things people all over Virginia have told me that they care about."

State and national media interest continued Tuesday, with dozens of news pieces and TV and radio interviews. Reactions included Democrats and women's groups seeking to portray McDonnell as an ultra-conservative, Republicans dismissing the controversy as a feeble attempt by Deeds to revive his sagging poll numbers and conservative Republicans saying they are not thrilled with McDonnell's change of heart on some views.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, aggressively pushed the thesis as a campaign issue, sending out at least five news releases and an e-mail to supporters under the subject heading "Grave Concern."

Victoria Cobb, president of the Virginia-based Family Foundation, called upon McDonnell not to waver in his conservatism. "Bob McDonnell got where he is because pro-family Virginians have seen him as a champion for their cause," Cobb said. "If he expects to motivate those same voters, they need to continue to see him as that champion."

Bill Stanley, a self-described conservative from Franklin County, said Republicans in his part of the state are not talking much about the thesis, and he dismissed it as a paper likely written to please his professors.

"If he's changed his views on women and the workplace, good for him. I don't see that [as] straying from a conservative viewpoint. Conservative values are strong family values," he said. "I don't think that means he is less conservative."

Staff writer Sandhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.

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