Deeds: From Patching Fence to Straddling It
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 -- "