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In Va., Downstate Races Point Up Regional Differences

Barbara Chrisley
Republican Barbara Chrisley at the Central Styling Barber and Beauty Shop in downtown Radford, Va., with barber Roger Simpkins, and Mike Martin. (Cindy Pinkston The Washington Post)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 22, 1999; Page A1

DUBLIN, Va. Republican Barbara M. Chrisley doesn't hunt, but she knows what to do when a potential voter is in her cross hairs. "Absolutely I believe in maintaining our gun rights," she tells the man who greets her at his door. Moments later, he slaps a blaze-orange "Sportsmen for Barbara Chrisley" sticker on the bumper of his pickup truck.

Campaign stickers in the suburban battlegrounds of this year's legislative elections tend toward blues and reds. But here in Southwest Virginia, hunter's orange is good as gold.

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Just as gun control enjoys broad bipartisan support in Northern Virginia, it wins equally broad bipartisan disdain in downstate districts such as this one, 285 miles southwest of Washington. Chrisley's Democratic rival for the House of Delegates, W.B. "Benny" Keister, offers this definition of "gun control."

"I have my guns," he said with a smile, "and I'm going to keep them."

The regional differences don't stop there. Upstate voters generally favor abortion rights; downstaters generally don't. Upstaters worry about controlling growth; downstaters struggle to spur it. Upstaters argue that too much government money flows downstate; downstaters argue that too much government money flows upstate.

Even issues on which the regions agree, such as on the need for heavy new transportation spending, are cast differently. Upstaters see it as the key to battling traffic congestion, and downstaters see it as the key to battling economic stagnation.

No matter how the Nov. 2 elections turn out, the state legislature will be split more clearly on regional lines than partisan ones. Concerns shared by voters across the state such as building more roads or spending more money on schools become the focus of successful coalitions. Meanwhile, issues with only regional appeal such as the growth management and gun-control issues popular in Washington's suburbs often languish, despite bipartisan support.

The Chrisley-Keister race is one of the toughest fought and most closely watched in Southwest Virginia. Yet the opposing candidates are more in agreement with each other than they are with the political views of many candidates in the Northern Virginia suburbs, which control about a quarter of the state legislative seats.

"On the gun issue, you can draw a line down the middle of the state," said political science professor Robert D. Holsworth of Virginia Commonwealth University. "On one side of the line, people are worried about keeping their guns. On the other side, people are worried about guns showing up in certain places."

In Northern Virginia, such issues have played prominently in several legislative races. Democratic challengers have blasted Republican incumbents for voting to back Gov. James S. Gilmore III's proposal to allow student hunters to bring their rifles into school parking lots, as long as they leave them locked in their cars. Several of those same Republicans changed their votes later that day, killing the proposal, but Democrats there have made "zero tolerance for guns in schools" a rallying cry.

The issue hasn't come up at all in the Chrisley-Keister race, though when asked, Keister sides with the Democrats and Chrisley says individual school districts should decide about whether to allow hunting guns into parking lots.

A clue as to why the issue hasn't generated more heat in the district can be found in this piece of polling data: Two-thirds of the households in the district own at least one gun, according to GOP strategist Ray Allen, who is based in Richmond and grew up in neighboring Blacksburg.

"I got my first gun when I was 12. My daddy gave me a shotgun," Allen said. In Southwest Virginia, he said, "everybody's pro-gun."

Neither Chrisley or Keister has run for the House of Delegates before. For the past decade, the seat had been held by Thomas G. Baker Jr. (R), who announced his retirement last winter.

With the General Assembly split nearly evenly, both parties have targeted the open seat, because control of the House of Delegates could turn on such a race in such a swing district. The district's mercurial voting patterns a product of heavy unionization, cultural conservatism and wariness of party labels has made the race even more enticing to party strategists. Voters here supported Republican Oliver L. North's unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in 1994, then two years later voted for Democrat Mark R. Warner in his unsuccessful Senate campaign.

Into the fray have stepped Keister, 58, the mayor of Dublin, a former teacher, counselor and football coach, and Chrisley, 53, a professor at Radford University.

Both are natives of the area and well-known in the district, giving the race a different feel from those in fast-growing, transient areas such as Northern Virginia, where even incumbents constantly must reintroduce themselves.

Keister has been mayor of Dublin for 11 years and is credited with helping the town of 2,000 add jobs through redevelopment of a closed textile mill. Taxes have gone down as well.

Friends call him a "good old boy," and he drives a half-ton GMC pickup truck, officiates NASCAR races on the weekends and has a closet full of guns, including some antique rifles and pistols. He can't walk but a few feet in most parts of the district without being stopped for a chat.

But in a district where most people call themselves conservatives, Chrisley is working hard for an edge. She's advocating mandatory drug testing for juveniles who are arrested a proposal Keister opposes. Chrisley also favors putting a $10,000 bounty on drug kingpins, as recently proposed by Gilmore, and bringing more discipline to classrooms.

Yet it's her hard stance on gun issues that won over 75-year-old Rudy Edwards, a lifelong hunter whom she visited in the local barbershop he once owned.

"I've known Benny [Keister] since he was a kid," said Edwards, holding a stack of Chrisley's blaze-orange bumper stickers to give out to friends. But, he adds, "I just don't think he'd be as aggressive as she. . .. If she believes in something, she'll go all the way with it."



 
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