Deeds: From Patching Fence to Straddling It

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 4, 2009

Creigh Deeds was stammering, as is often his way when trying to explain a change in one of his political positions. He indicated that he felt conflicted over a stance, not the first time during his campaign for Virginia governor. "I'm not certain I would do that again," he said.

He was referring to a vote he cast three years earlier to place a state constitutional amendment on the ballot prohibiting gay people from marrying or entering into civil unions. Within weeks, seemingly in an about-face, Deeds said he would not support the amendment. Now, a tentative Deeds sat in a Washington conference room, still not quite sure where he stood. "My thoughts have evolved in a lot of respects," he said, noting that his evolution had carried him to the point where he had doubts that "government ought to be involved" in same-sex marriage.

At 51, Deeds frequently describes himself as a "work in progress" -- the product of growing up on a farm, on the hard side of a mountain where the unexpected was the norm and where anyone who couldn't compromise was inviting failure.

To supporters, his capacity for change suggests the promise of his leadership: that, never having been wed to ideology, he is capable of responding even-handedly to the array of economic and social challenges facing Virginia. To his skeptics, the trait merely evinces Deeds's habit of trying to appeal to different constituencies by saying "yes" and "no" to the same question.

Deeds's climb up the ladder of the House of Delegates, the state Senate and a successful Democratic primary run represents the triumph of political malleability over ideology. He has spent a career trimming and finessing positions to win votes in the General Assembly and expand his coalition by building a statewide profile as a somewhat conservative and unpredictable Democrat. By contrast, the career of Robert F. McDonnell has soared on a reputation of steadfast conviction that has especially captivated Republicans and social conservatives.

Not surprisingly, their critics view their defining political characteristics as failings: McDonnell's strong compass perceived as permanently stuck on true Right since the publication of his graduate school thesis rendered him a fierce ideologue in the minds of some voters; Deeds dismissed as an opportunist without any compass or proven leadership abilities at all. In an odd twist, each candidate finds himself in the position of having to prove that he has the political quality most associated with his opponent -- in McDonnell's case, that he has some of Deeds's non-ideological flexibility; in Deeds's case, that he has a measure of McDonnell's conviction to lead.

"I will be able to bring people together and get it done -- nothing is off the table," Deeds has said when asked how he would propose to finance needed transportation improvements in Virginia, although he refuses to present a plan with many specifics. Indeed, specifics to Deeds often look like road mines. "I could be specifically wrong," he said in the conference room, a tad irritably.

Blazing a trail has always seemed like an ego trip to him. "I don't believe a lot gets done by screaming from the mountaintop about something," he said. Perhaps no issue has more exposed the nimbleness of his style -- and its risks -- as his sometimes confusing and ever-evolving position on the issue of same-sex marriage.

His 2006 support of the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between "one man and one woman" triggered an immediate backlash from many Democrats key to his hopes of winning his party's nomination this year. It was not his first dust-up on an issue involving gay rights. In 1999, after Republicans had criticized a Deeds vote against a 1994 budget amendment that would have prohibited the extension of state insurance benefits to same-sex partners of faculty members at state colleges, the Staunton Daily News Leader reported that a Deeds spokesperson said, "But that was a meaningless vote. . . . Mr. Deeds does not support gay rights." Before long, after carefully reiterating his commitment to equality for gay people, Deeds emphasized in a paid newspaper ad that he was against "special rights" for gay people.

Faced with mounting criticism for his support of the amendment, Deeds offered a new statement shortly after the controversy erupted: He declared he had come to be troubled by the possible consequences of the measure. But the question of why he voted to put it on the ballot to begin with was still plaguing him years later when he sat down in the conference room.

What is your own view on same-sex marriages and civil unions? he was asked.

He stammered a little. He looked down at the conference table. He said that, for himself, marriage was between a man and a woman, then went on: "I, I, I support . . . making sure everybody has equal rights. Down the road, in the big picture, and this is an area where my thought has evolved a lot, I'm not as convinced as I used to be that government should even be in the marriage business. . . . But the reality is that Virginia law does define marriage. And I'm not on a crusade to -- "

Suddenly, in mid-sentence, he stopped talking.

He lifted his head. He looked sideways at an aide. It was quiet in the conference room. "I'm not so certain that government ought to be involved in defining that sort of relationship for people," he finally said.

His words sounded tantamount to saying that same-sex marriage should not be barred by government. Was that a fair interpretation?

"It's not an issue. I don't know . . . ," he responded. He swayed in his chair, leaned forward and ran his palms along his temples. "I'm focused on the issues I have to deal with. This is not one that is, I -- my thought has evolved on this subject over the years, through the process of being married 28 years. . . . My thoughts have evolved, and I'm in a different place than I was just a few years ago. . . . It's a subject I've been thinking about a long time, and it's not one I'm prepared to make an issue of in this campaign."

It was hard, as always, to read him. He ruminated over the amendment a little longer and reiterated why he'd voted to put it on the ballot: "I didn't think it broke new law."

Finally, he shrugged. He shuffled his feet beneath his chair. He evolved a little more. "I could well have come to a different decision had I to do it again."

'I Was All Hat and No Cattle'

Deeds's conciliatory approach is a strain in his temperament that dates to his boyhood, say childhood friends and acquaintances, who remember a shy boy quietly skilled at getting along with others, a boy who learned to manage stress from the time his parents' marriage had fallen apart.

When he was 7, his mother, Emma, picked up him and his younger brother, Greg, from an eight-week stint at their uncle's summer camp with some news: They weren't going home, and they wouldn't be living with their father any longer. For an instant, Deeds's voice quavers as he remembers his desolation. "It had an effect, no question," he said. "It was pretty traumatic."

In the next instant, he straightens in his chair. "The divorce was equally unpleasant," he remembers. At birth, he had been named Robert Creigh Deeds, but never would he remember his mother or anyone else close to him calling him Robert. His father -- the Robert who left -- had become a remote figure in his children's lives, eventually moving to the Charlottesville area. In school, the boy answered only to Creigh.

The young Deeds took refuge in the company of the man he revered, his maternal grandfather Creigh, as everybody knew him -- Austin Creigh Tyree, a longtime Democratic Party honcho in their native Bath County, a rural hamlet without a stoplight where longtime residents tended to know everyone who mattered and most who didn't. Creigh Tyree mattered. While serving as chairman of the Bath County Democrats, during the Depression, Tyree's house was the first private home in the county to receive electricity from the federal Rural Electrification Act, proof of the power of government, he told his grandson. Watching the elderly man work the circuit of county shops and farms, the boy saw the power of political maneuvering, the influence it brought a man, the way it enabled the well-connected to pick up a phone and get something previously ungettable. Young Deeds started telling elementary school teachers that he wanted to be, would be, governor someday, and then president.

His mother remarried and, not far from where Deeds's ancestors had put down stakes in the 18th century, the blended family lived in a trailer on his grandfather's farm, which had belonged to the Tyree family since the early 1800s. His mother had another son, and the family settled into lives whose rhythms were foretold by a nearby mountain. "We lived on its east side," Deeds said. East meant the less-affluent side of the Warm Springs Mountain, the hardscrabble end. Those on the west side could boast of the Homestead resort and big-spending visitors who had flocked there for the past century. The west stood for money and influence. The east-siders had a mountain to negotiate.

After his grandfather died, Deeds and his family moved into the main house. While his stepfather did his carpentry work and his mother drove long routes as a mail carrier, Deeds came home from school and helped care for the family's hogs and cattle, some of which had to be occasionally retrieved when they wandered though holes in the farm's fencing. "Most of the work we did was patch fence," he recalls. "You always were patching fence."

Suburbia's amenities -- malls, fast-food restaurants, bowling alleys -- were nonexistent, and even the nearest markets were a good 40-minute drive to Millboro. "Millboro and the rest of the east side wasn't the kind of place where you could just run out and grab something quick if you needed it," recalls Gene "Bugs" Phillips, who lived on the west side and attended high school with Deeds. "The closest store for them was a long, long drive. Maybe they'd make that drive once a week. . . . People had to improvise and work with each other over there. . . . I think that shaped Creigh. He learned pretty early how to get along with people."

For all his dreams, Deeds seemed unable to follow through on the schoolwork that might have set him on the path to a big-name college. "I was all hat and no cattle," he remembers.

Not long afterward, he was off to Concord College in West Virginia, where he met his future wife, Pam, with whom he has four children. For the first time in his educational career, he applied himself, his grades good enough to gain admission to Wake Forest Law School, from where he returned to Bath County between his second and third years for a summer internship in a local law office. Several political activists, fond of his late grandfather and keen on encouraging him, made a point of showing him off. A local woman named Sadie Hepler took him to a meeting of Bath County Democrats and introduced him to members as a future president. Hepler had come to see the young man's entrance into public life as destiny, a vision not discouraged by Deeds.

During his internship in the nearby town of Covington, the hub of the area, Deeds had frequent dealings and conversations with Mike Collins, one of the lawyers in the office. "He fidgeted a little, was kind of shy," Collins remembers. "He seemed very different from a lot of other people aspiring to things in law and politics. You couldn't help but like him."

In 1987, three years out of law school, Deeds decided to run for commonwealth's attorney. Cast as the hometown boy taking on an incumbent who had grown up out of state, Deeds won by about 2 to 1. Four years later, with the state having gone through political redistricting, a local Republican incumbent in the House of Delegates suddenly looked vulnerable. The state's Democratic establishment had a challenger in mind: Mike Collins.

But before he could announce, Deeds beat him to the starting line. "Creigh always was shy," Collins remembers, "but he wasn't shy about jumping into that race. When he went after something, he went hard."

Deeds saw no upside in deferring to anyone. "I heard Mike was thinking of running," Deeds recalls. "But nobody told me I had to wait for Mike or wait for anybody. . . . I didn't call around asking for permission to run."

Just as in his commonwealth attorney's race, no real issue separated Deeds from his chief rival. But Collins's Covington base presented a worry. Deeds spent seven days a week walking remote roads, determined to knock on more doors and shake more hands than his opponent. "Creigh had fire in the belly," Collins remembers, acknowledging that he was largely outworked by the victorious underdog. "He didn't make mistakes. He was a conservative on most things, and even later you couldn't ever paint him with a blue brush, which was smart because this has always been a pretty conservative area."

That positioning helped Deeds in the general election, in which he beat the Republican incumbent by 16 points. His success did not stem from his abilities on a stage. Local Democratic Party leaders at the time recall Deeds exhibiting the same weaknesses and strengths as a campaigner then as now. "He was not the most dynamic speaker," recalls Joe Wood, the Bath County Democratic chairman. "He was never great with larger crowds. But he did a good job getting his point across when the crowd was small. . . . He could really make a connection."

In the General Assembly, Deeds reflected his constituents' deeply held values, notably on issues of gun rights, eventually serving as the Democratic co-chair of the Sportsmen's Caucus in the state Senate, where he led the drive to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing rights to hunters and fishermen, a move viewed by local admirers as proof of his loyalty and by detractors as blatant pandering.

As a delegate, he pushed to close a privately-owned industrial landfill in Allegheny County, which helped build him a base with environmentalists and other activists while offending no powerful groups. Quietly pro-choice, he steered clear of contentious disputes over social issues, his most touted legislative efforts largely marked by bipartisan support, including Virginia's Megan's Law, which mandated the establishment of a registry of the state's sex offenders.

After the 2000 death of Charlottesville's Democratic star Emily Couric, he pondered a run for her vacant state Senate seat. A small group of influential Couric supporters, many of whom had never met Deeds, requested a meeting with him. Unabashed liberals who were outspoken on gun control and an array of social issues, the group seemed an unlikely fit.

"There were about 12 to 15 of us there, and all we'd been told is that he was somebody we at least ought to meet before doing anything," remembers Rhoda Dreyfus, who hosted the gathering with her husband in their Charlottesville home. "He said, 'I've been around guns all my life' and that he wouldn't be able to go along with the majority sentiment in the room on [gun control measures]. . . . Most people in the room were anti-death penalty, and he said he was not opposed to the death penalty."

"It was a tough conversation," Deeds recalls. But the small group liked that he was pro-choice, appreciated what they heard about his environmental efforts and decided he was more electable than two untested Charlottesville Democrats. He left the meeting with the support of the room and soon had won the special election.

In the Senate, his legislative style fused his characteristic caution with an effort at projecting an aptitude for conciliatory leadership. He was most noticeable in advocating on behalf of the imperiled 2004 budget of then-Gov. Mark Warner, helping arm-twist and cajole behind the scenes to unite a disparate band that included John Chichester and other renegade Republican legislators. The drive culminated in the budget's passage and, in the aftermath, Deeds won fulsome praise from several of the Republican mutineers, including Chichester, who crossed party lines this year to support his bid.

'I Felt the Need to Respond'

Shortly before his victory in June's Democratic primary, Deeds and a young man named Omar Samaha briefly crossed paths in a Northern Virginia parking lot. Samaha's sister, Reena, had been among those killed in the shootings at Virginia Tech, and he had just come from watching Deeds debate his two rivals for the Democratic nomination, an event that had done nothing to assuage his worry about Deeds's commitment to any of the gun control issues that mattered to him. The candidate spoke briefly about his agenda. Before parting, Deeds suggested that his political style could best deliver what Samaha wanted. "I'm a middle of the roader," Deeds said. "I can get things done."

In the aftermath of the shootings, Deeds had done an about-face on an issue close to the heart of Samaha and other gun control activists, saying that, after years of opposition, he had come to favor closing a loophole in the law that exempted sellers at gun shows from requiring background checks on buyers.

Characteristically, Deeds managed to sound somewhat conflicted about his change of heart. He told passionate gun rights proponents that, fundamentally, he didn't like gun control legislation. He noted that killer Seung-Hui Cho had not bought his gun at a private show. He simply wanted to convey sensitivity to the grieving, he indicated.

"I'm still not convinced it's a . . . dramatic number of weapons that are sold without a background check," he said. "But these people, these family members, channeled their grief into that legislation. . . . As a human being, I felt the need to respond."

Knowing about Deeds's longstanding opposition to gun control measures made Samaha leery. But he remained open to voting for him if he heard what he wanted. He conveyed appreciation to Deeds for the candidate's skill at crafting compromise amendments in the legislature that had enabled the gun show loophole bill to win approval in a Senate committee before it went down to defeat on the Senate floor.

Several weeks after the primary, Deeds and Samaha spoke again, this time when Deeds called the young activist. They talked about the effort to close the gun show loophole, with Deeds making a political observation: His changed position would likely cost him the NRA's endorsement (it did). Samaha raised a new concern: He hoped that the legislature would outlaw guns in bars. Deeds, who opposes such an idea, responded that there is no such thing as a bar in Virginia. The statement left Samaha bewildered. Deeds elaborated: Any establishment in Virginia that serves alcohol has to make at least half its income on food; thus, technically, no bars.

Their talk left Samaha puzzled and slightly disappointed. Samaha's lingering doubts reflect those who say they have struggled to understand the basics of Deeds's philosophy on an array of social and economic issues. Questions have grown over his style, with critics seeing him as quick to halt discussion whenever he senses peril at defining his positions more precisely. While McDonnell has had to contend with the blistering scrutiny of his graduate school thesis, it is Deeds who has betrayed more stress on the campaign trail.

After a recent debate with McDonnell, a scrum of reporters and spectators encircled him, asking yet again for financing details of his evolving transportation plan. He had said during the debate that he would not raise taxes. But suddenly he suggested that he might raise them -- although not "general fund taxes," he said. The term was opaque. Confusion momentarily reigned. At last, getting to the heart of the matter, someone asked whether a gas tax was a general fund tax. A weary-looking Deeds said no. So gas taxes could be raised? he was pressed.

The question asked Deeds to go further than he wanted to go. He wheeled on the questioner and flashed irritation. "I think I've made myself clear, young lady," he snapped.

The friction in that instant -- featured in a television commercial by the McDonnell campaign -- crystallized the greatest challenge facing Austin Creigh Tyree's grandson. Raised to believe in the power of compromise, he tends to see pledges and specifics as just so many holes in a frayed fence that will require patching anyway. Long ago, he learned the lessons of wily Bath County politicians, and it has shaped his style since, its strengths and vulnerabilities. He doesn't see the point in pontificating from the mountaintop. His career reflects the belief that it works best simply to drive around the mountain and hammer something out with somebody -- that results count more than white papers.

But at some point, even people on the mountain want to know where you are taking them, want to see your map. For Deeds, the task is to convince voters during the campaign's final 30 days that he has one.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company