By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009
State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic nominee for Virginia governor, is struggling to connect with some business leaders, an influential voting bloc that has been key to Democratic victories in recent elections.
With major backing from unions, conflicting promises on taxes and no details on how to fix the state's mounting transportation crisis, Deeds is not swaying some business-minded voters who are jittery about the economy and who say they don't like what they see as Deeds's uncertain positions on a host of critical state and federal issues.
Doubts about Deeds's business support have pervaded the campaign this week, as has the perception that his Republican opponent, Robert F. McDonnell, has more persuasively made the case that he will create jobs, keep taxes low and protect Virginia's right-to-work laws.
On Thursday, both candidates appealed directly to one of the state's largest business groups at a debate in Tysons Corner sponsored by the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce. Many said afterward that Deeds failed to connect with the business-minded voters who helped elect the last two Democratic governors, Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine.
"He never addressed the issue of 'What is your plan,' " said C. Daniel Clemente, a real estate investor from McLean who supported Warner in 2001 but said he left Thursday's debate feeling "very sorry" for Deeds. " 'I'm for education' -- what's your plan? 'I'm for transportation. I'm going to bring everybody together.' To do what?"
Republicans have long held the advantage with Virginia's business community by promising low taxes, less burdensome regulations and opposition to organized labor. Warner and Kaine helped lure many of those votes to the Democratic column by making the case that Virginia's business-friendly environment has as much to do with the quality of public schools, state universities, ports and highways as with those other, traditionally Republican priorities. Warner and Kaine also portrayed their opponents as ideologically driven conservatives less focused on the practical issues confronting the state's business community.
This year, Deeds has tried much the same strategy, portraying McDonnell as an out-of-touch social conservative who, as a state lawmaker for 14 years, focused on social issues such as abortion restrictions more than job creation or protecting schools.
"He's been focused on a social agenda," Deeds said at the Thursday debate. "That's what's driven him the last 18 years."
The difficulty for Deeds is that McDonnell has focused almost exclusively on economic issues in his candidacy. He has promised to pursue oil and gas exploration off the coast of Virginia. He has offered a tax credit for businesses that create jobs. He has laid out a plan to pay for traffic improvements by selling Virginia's state-run liquor stores and adding tolls to highways. And he has taken a strong stand against federal proposals to restrict carbon emissions, require small businesses to provide health coverage and eliminate the secret ballot in union elections.
"The secret to Virginia's success has been keeping taxes, regulation and litigation low, strong right-to-work laws and great universities," McDonnell said at the debate. "That's the same thing that I'm going to bring to the office of governor. My opponent is going to continue to find new ways to tax the people of Virginia. We have a fundamental difference on that."
Deeds has his own agenda to jump-start the economy, including a proposal to double the Governor's Opportunity Fund, used for luring businesses to the state (McDonnell has made the same promise); a tax credit for businesses that create jobs; and a promise to find new revenue to pay for road improvements. He also has criticized McDonnell for a roads plan that would take money from existing state priorities, notably public schools, and for making costly promises, such as raising teacher pay, that would be difficult to achieve without raising taxes or cutting deeply into other programs.
Some of those arguments are resonating with business leaders who see Deeds as a moderate willing to raise funds for transportation without harming public schools.
"I'm very comfortable that Deeds will do just what Warner and Kaine have done," said Mark D. Betts of McLean, a Deeds supporter and the chief executive officer of the investment company EEA Development. "His policies are going to be a continuation of that tradition. Forbes has rated Virginia one of the best states to do business in the country. Republicans don't have a monopoly on being pro-business."
Betts has donated money to Deeds, but according to campaign finance reports, the Democrat has not collected as many donations from business leaders as Warner and Kaine did before him. But many of those business leaders haven't contributed to either candidate -- indicating, perhaps, that McDonnell also has not made the sale with some business leaders.
Still, Deeds has stumbled with a series of ambiguous responses to questions about his positions on whether he would raise taxes (yes for transportation, no for general services); whether he supports federal cap and trade legislation to reduce carbon emissions (yes in principle, but not the current congressional proposal); whether he supports ending the secret ballot for union elections (he says the congressional bill is not going anywhere, but he supports Virginia's right to work laws); and whether he supports health-care reform (it depends upon the details).
As a result of such positions, business groups such as the Virginia chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, the Virginia Association of Realtors, the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Credit Union League have endorsed McDonnell.
Some critics say part of Deeds's challenge is in the way he communicates. A self-described "country lawyer" from rural Bath County, 200 miles southwest of Washington, Deeds's folksy speaking style and his lack of business experience have left some corporate leaders, particularly in Northern Virginia, unimpressed.
At a recent candidates forum with business leaders in Northern Virginia, Deeds talked about living upstream from the home his ancestors built in 1740. He mentioned the struggles of Virginia families in South Hill and Martinsville. He told the defense contractors, lawyers and investors in the room how much worse off rural Virginia is than the suburbs of Washington. He was halfway through his 20-minute speech before he talked about a centerpiece of his economic plan: to provide tax breaks for businesses that create jobs.
"He doesn't speak the language," said former Republican congressman Tom Davis, who works at Deloitte Consulting. "He doesn't understand it. That's just not the mold he comes from. He comes from a different world. It's okay. But it doesn't qualify him."