By Rosalind S. Helderman and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Virginia gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell has been working for months to reach out to female voters, a critical constituency, by forming a women's organization and touting the endorsement of the managing partner of the Washington Mystics women's basketball team.
McDonnell has now turned to his prominent female backers to help rebuild his relationship with the key voting bloc, damaged in recent days by the publication of his 1989 master's thesis. He wrote in the thesis that working women and feminists had been "detrimental" to the traditional family and criticized federal tax credits for child care because they made it easier for women to be employed outside the home.
His efforts came as leaders of national organizations focused on the Virginia race, convinced that McDonnell's thesis shows that his election would erase gains for women.
McDonnell has said his views on working women have changed in the two decades since he wrote the paper at age 34 at Regent University in Virginia Beach. On Tuesday, he made his most prominent female supporter, Democrat Sheila Johnson, available to say she believes the document is an irrelevant distraction in a campaign that should focus on rejuvenating the state's economy.
"This man has changed and evolved over the years. I am interested in Bob McDonnell from his record and what he's been doing for the state of Virginia," said Johnson, who was a leading supporter of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and is part owner of the Washington WNBA team. "As one working woman speaking to all working women out there, he really is the best candidate for governor."
Johnson said that four of McDonnell's nine top campaign staffers are women and that he promoted women after he was elected attorney general in 2005. She added that she believes the Deeds campaign had seized on the thesis because polls before its publication had showed the Democrat trailing McDonnell.
At a McDonnell event Tuesday, a group of women held pink signs that read "Women for McDonnell." And his campaign on Monday released statements of support from eight women.
Both campaigns have been targeting women, who make up 54 percent of registered voters in Virginia. Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) has held rallies with female supporters in an effort to convince voters that McDonnell's long history of working to restrict access to abortions put him out of the mainstream.
According to a recent Washington Post poll, conducted before publication of McDonnell's thesis, the two candidates were running about even with women.
Countering McDonnell's efforts are those of women such as Arlington County resident Marjorie Signer, who serves as president of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for Women. Signer said she read about McDonnell's thesis in the Washington Post at 11 a.m. Sunday and immediately left home to picket a Women for McDonnell rally at Lake Burke Park in Fairfax.
Signer stood on the side of the road with a sign that read "Women Deserve Better than Bob."
"It is not a comfort to me that he has women in his staff or in leadership of his campaign or his daughters are working women," she said. "That is not comforting to me. I'm concerned about who he truly is in the sense of his worldview."
Democrats are working to convince voters that McDonnell's thesis amounted to a political blueprint for how he would govern. They say he pursued the ideas with a conservative voting record in the legislature.
The president of the national organization the Feminist Majority on Tuesday released a statement calling McDonnell's thesis a "policy directive to the Republican Party" and said the group would likely be sending messages about the issue to its e-mail list.
The two campaigns are competing for the votes of women such as Judy Morris, of Grottoes, Va., just outside of Harrisonburg, who took part in the recent Post poll.
Morris said she was uncomfortable with the views expressed in the thesis because women already struggle for equal respect in the workplace. But, she said, her discomfort was not sufficient to persuade her to cast her ballot for Deeds, who she said was tarnished by his affiliation with President Obama.
"When you're in college and when you're in grad school, you can be idealistic," she said. "But when you get out into the real world, you realize there's a give-and-take. You have to negotiate your way. He's probably changed his views."
Staff writer Anita Kumar and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.