By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 7:56 PM
Virginia Democrats elected former legislator Brian Moran as their new leader Saturday as they look to turn their party around after two years of punishing defeats.
The Democratic State Central Committee chose Moran, who made a failed run for governor in 2009, over former Arlington County Democratic Committee chairman Peter Rousselot. The vote was by secret ballot, with no debate.
Democrats say their new chairman must help the party be more aggressive against Republicans including Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, who has quickly become a national figure; Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who is already running for governor in 2013; and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, who has received an extraordinary amount of attention for his legal opinions and lawsuits against the federal government.
"We need to have somebody be an effective voice in opposition to the governor,'' said Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax), a State Central Committee member who served as chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee. "There hasn't been anything in the last year. There's been silence."
Moran will be expected to immediately concentrate on energizing a discouraged party, unify multiple factions and work to hold onto the state Senate's slim Democratic majority while trying to pick up seats in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.
But first Democrats are waging uphill battles to win a pair of Republican-leaning legislative seats next month.
Moran said he will then begin working to recruit Democrats for all 140 legislative seats on the ballots next year. "We need to return to our winning ways,'' he said.
Many are looking to him to design a new strategy for the future, whether it involves better communication with Virginians or advocating new policies.
"He needs to be able to formulate the message,'' said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond), a member of the State Central Committee. "I think the message is more than a slogan. It's who we are as a party."
The race for chairman showed that the beleaguered party still suffers from sharp divisions as it heads into next year's legislative elections, with activists split between the establishment and grass roots.
Top Democrats, including Sens. Mark R. Warner and James Webb and former governor Timothy M. Kaine, urged Moran to run, causing some activists to accuse them of trying to dictate the party chairmanship.
But Moran, 51, said he received support from all types of people across the state from Arlington to Abingdon. "The divisions don't exist,'' he said. "We are unified."
Rousselot jumped into the race as the anti-establishment candidate with the backing of grass-roots activists and left-leaning blogs, which heaped praise on him for helping the Arlington Democratic Committee with its door-to-door contact and online operations.
He pledged to be a full-time chairman while Moran worked as executive vice president for government relations of the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities.
Rousselot said he doesn't regret getting into the race because he set the agenda for the party that Moran has embraced. But, Rousselot said, it remains to be seen whether the party can move forward in a unified way.
"Brian deserves a chance - he won,'' he said. "There are no hard feelings on my part."
Party officials declined to release Saturday's vote totals, and Rousselot called for a vote for Moran by acclimation after he found out he did not win. Most State Central Committee members wore blue "Brian!" stickers.
Warner, Webb and Kaine, now chairman of the Democratic National Committee, did not attend the meeting Saturday, although all three are members of the State Central Committee. Warner called Moran to congratulate him.
Frank Leone, a member of the State Central Committee, said he supported Moran, in part, because Democrats need a high-profile leader.
Moran, younger brother of Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), was elected to the House of Delegates in 1996 and was the Democratic Caucus chairman for seven years. He lost to state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) in the Democratic primary for governor.
Charley Conrad, chairman of the LGBT Stonewall Democratic Caucus and a State Central Committee member, said Moran was an early supporter of gay rights and opposed a constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage. "He didn't need to do that,'' Conrad said. "It was politically risky."
Moran replaced C. Richard Cranwell, a 30-year fixture in the House of Delegates, who resigned the volunteer position after leading the party for five years. Moran's term expires in 2013.
Saturday's gathering of nearly 200 party activists in Newport News was the first meeting since Republicans toppled three Democratic members of Congress and nearly defeated a fourth last month. Democrats are left with three of the state's 11 House seats.
A decade ago, Virginia Republicans controlled all five statewide offices, including both U.S. Senate seats, and the General Assembly.
Democrats began gaining ground in 2001 with the election of Warner as governor. They later won another gubernatorial election, both U.S. Senate seats, control of the state Senate and, for the first time in four decades, the state's 13 electoral votes for the Democratic presidential candidate.
But the pendulum appears to be swinging back. Last month's election came a year after Republicans swept all three statewide races - governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general - and picked up six seats in the House of Delegates.