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After loss, Va.'s Deeds tries to regain his footing

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010; A01

It's not easy to hide in public service, but in the early days of Virginia's General Assembly session this year, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds seemed to be trying.

Months after being trounced by his Republican opponent in a governor's race that received national attention, Deeds (D-Bath) kept his head low. He gave no floor speeches. He kept his own counsel in the Democratic caucus. He skipped its retreat. Other lawmakers gave him a wide berth, too.

Outside the state Capitol, Deeds socialized less than in former years. He was terse with reporters and seemed eager to be anywhere the media were not. What media attention he did receive was not always positive.

When the race to fill the U.S. Senate seat held by the late Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) transformed Democratic candidate Martha Coakley from shoo-in to goat, pundits compared her to Deeds.

His bill to create a lifetime hunting license for infants -- one of the few initiatives of his to pass the General Assembly -- came in for a round of wicked mockery by Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central.

Other significant legislative initiatives, such as an eight-year fight for nonpartisan redistricting, perished in committees.

Former Democratic governor L. Douglas Wilder, who denied Deeds his endorsement during the campaign, lashed out at Deeds afterward. Speaking out against an attempted repeal of Virginia's ban on buying more than one handgun a month, Wilder criticized Deeds for abandoning his party's traditional embrace of gun control and giving comfort to the forces seeking to loosen firearms regulations.

Outwardly, Deeds, 52, seemed to have weathered the loss. Except for a dash of gray hair over his temples, he still has his boyish looks. From the Senate gallery one could see him smiling in the glow of his laptop and scrolling through spring training reports about his beloved Cincinnati Reds while fellow senators conversed during a break. But Deeds, who comes off as a bit shy for a politician, seemed more withdrawn than usual.

"How's the session going?" a reporter asked during a break.

"It goes," he replied, lifting his eyes just above the top of his eyeglasses.

On inauguration day, as marching bands played and military jets swooped low in a majestic salute to the man who beat him, Deeds updated Twitter followers with his playlist that day. At the top was the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

Overwhelming defeat

The 18-point loss was such that even some of his friends use the most violent verbs to describe it: Deeds was clobbered. He was drubbed. And so on. Campaign insiders admitted that there had not been one mistake, but many.

Unlike his Democratic Party primary opponents who were not in office, however, Deeds could not put off returning to the public arena. When the General Assembly convened in Richmond, he was there, and colleagues said it was obvious that he was still smarting. Deeds told them he felt as if he had dragged the team down and cost his party six House seats.

"He seemed down in the dumps," said Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke).

Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), who has known Deeds since they entered the House as freshmen, said she dined with Deeds once during the session and skirted discussion of the gubernatorial election.

"If we were going to talk about it, he was going to be the one to bring it up," Puller said. "We had a good time talking about the good ol' days."

Puller said she also heard that the relentless demands of public life had cost Deeds his marriage. "I said, 'I just heard this about you. I'm very sorry.' He said, 'So am I.' "

With time, Deeds regained his footing. Outside events, such as Scott Brown's stunning Senate upset in Massachusetts, lent credence to the view that Deeds's loss owed something to a powerful change in the nation's political atmosphere.

"I don't think Jesus Christ could have won that race in Virginia if he had been a Democrat," said Robert J. Taylor, a lawyer in Delaware who attended college with Deeds. But Taylor said that when he thinks of Deeds, he thinks of a Hank Williams Jr. song: "A Country Boy Can Survive."

Recalling Deeds's surviving a serious accident as a boy, Taylor said Deeds never shied from long odds. Early on Election Day, Taylor drove with Deeds from Alexandria to Warm Springs, arriving about 4 a.m. Two hours later, Deeds rose to vote, knowing that polls foretold a resounding defeat.

"Winners are the ones who aren't afraid to lose. That's the way he lived his life," Taylor said.

In an interview during the session, Deeds seemed unenthusiastic talking about anything except music. As blues wafted from his Apple laptop, Deeds explained why the Band's Brown Album, as it's known by fans, might be the perfect rock-and-roll record. An hour passed before he edged into discussion of his campaign against Robert F. McDonnell, its aftermath and the sting of losing to the same man who had beaten him by a fraction of a percentage point four years earlier in the race for attorney general.

Things were going well, Deeds said, although he was aware colleagues were avoiding him. He expressed pride in his campaign, saying he had given it his all. He said he had already said everything about the election that he wanted to say and did not need more media attention. He admitted he was not socializing much. His wedding band was missing.

Deeds, who married his college sweetheart, Pam, on Feb. 10, 1981, had told friends the marriage was over, a casualty of a nearly 20-year pursuit of a lifelong ambition that kept him away from home. He declined to talk about it in interviews. Pam Deeds, in an interview last week, said the divorce was finalized Feb. 4. She, too, declined to comment further.

"Things didn't work out the way I wanted to, but I still got things to do," the senator said. "Just because I lost an election doesn't mean I was wrong about anything. I still have a role to play."

Getting back to basics

After the election, Deeds returned to Bath County, glad to be home after thousands of miles crisscrossing the state. He spent hours on his farm plinking targets with a Winchester rifle that had belonged to his grandfather, who was a big wheel in local politics when Deeds was young. He said his aim was not what it used to be, and his hands shook.

With the legislative session in full swing, Deeds expressed annoyance that so much attention was focused on whether to raise the speed limit. He shrugged off the spoof of his infant hunting license, saying his college-age children had tipped him to the "Colbert Report" segment, but he also expressed irritation that no one bothered to explore the bill's underlying premise of raising more money for the state conservation agency.

Nearing the session's midpoint, Deeds gave his first floor speech, denouncing efforts to block the federal health-care law in Virginia. Deeds said he had his reasons for holding his tongue earlier.

"It'd be too easy for me to be slamming the governor," Deeds said. "People would just say, 'Oh, well. It's Deeds. It's sour grapes.' "

His finest achievement of the session, Deeds said, was helping to pass Alicia's Law, which created permanent funding for law enforcement task forces fighting Internet crimes against children.

Going forward, Deeds said he plans to teach this fall at Washington and Lee University's law school and focus on rebuilding his private law practice, which languished during the six years he had been campaigning for statewide office.

"I mean, I haven't really practiced law in six years," Deeds said. "It's tough."

Then he added: "What choice do I have? You either live, or you die. If you die, you're dead. If you live, you've got a responsibility to keep moving, keep working, keep fighting. The struggle goes on. That's the position I'm in."

Finally, he allowed just a little about the race, saying that, earlier than most, he had detected the anti-Washington mood and the angry "tea party" vibe that posed challenges for any Democrat.

"It's kind of tough to get all the doggone criticism I got. It was a very tough environment we found ourselves in last year," Deeds said. "To be honest with you, a lot of people I worked with didn't know. I knew. Because I know the people."

It's the closest he comes to sounding bitter.

Then he recited some lyrics from "Life Goes On" by the Kinks:

Life goes on

It happens every day

So appreciate what you got

Before it's taken away

"Losing's not fun, but it's life, man," Deeds said. "You have to take chances. Life is not for the weak. Helen Keller wrote, 'Life is either a daring adventure, or it's nothing.' "

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