Let's Play Know Your Political Parties
Let's play Know Your Political Parties. Identify the party of this real-life candidate for state Senate in Fairfax County:
This candidate stresses her support for tough gun controls. She's endorsed by the state's gay-rights lobby. Unlike her opponent, she favors a moratorium on executions. She's the choice of the teachers association. She wants to put more restrictions on development, while her opponent favors more density around Metro stations. On illegal immigration, she says politicians hot for a crackdown are "demagoguing this to death and creating an atmosphere of hate."
Too easy, right? What an obvious Democrat, what a predictable lib.
Sorry. That's Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, the Fairfax Republican. Yes, Republican.
In a district that, even more than the rest of Fairfax, is trending Democratic, Devolites Davis is positioning herself to the left of her challenger, former delegate Chap Petersen. So commuters who see big roadside signs touting one candidate as "Teacher-Endorsed" and the other as "Police-Endorsed" may be excused for drawing the wrong conclusions about the contenders' parties.
When Marshall Thielen, president of the Fairfax Coalition of Police, says his union was happy to endorse the candidate who's "very much in line with what my membership considers reasonable gun legislation -- I mean, there are plenty of gun laws out there already," he's talking about the Democrat in the race.
Facing the toughest challenge of her political career, in a district that voted for Democrats John Kerry for president in 2004 and Jim Webb for U.S. Senate in 2006, Devolites Davis is telling voters she's a RINO, a Republican in Name Only. (She even tells audiences that Dick Saslaw, Fairfax's senior Democrat in the Senate, invited her to switch parties. Saslaw says it happened, but he was just joshing. "She's no Cuccinelli" -- that's Sen. Ken Cuccinelli, the hard-line conservative -- "but she's no moderate, either," Saslaw says.)
All posturing aside, Devolites Davis is no lefty. She gets consistent 100 percent ratings from the antiabortion Virginia Society for Human Life and a zero from the other side, the political arm of Planned Parenthood. And although Devolites Davis speaks strongly about eliminating discrimination against gay people, she sponsored Virginia's marriage amendment, which forbids same-sex marriage and civil unions.
But both candidates agree that the social issues that so often dominate Virginia politics play a minimal role in their district, where Devolites Davis and Petersen spend night after night knocking on doors, being asked primarily about traffic, transit and immigration.
"Are you a Democrat?" a young woman asks Petersen when he calls at her townhouse in the Circle Woods development near the Vienna Metro station.
When she gets the affirmative, the woman cuts off the candidate's pitch: "That's all I need to know. I'll be there for you."
With the double burden of running under the banner of an unpopular president and serving a district where most new residents are young singles, northern transplants or immigrants -- all groups that lean Democratic -- the incumbent says "the atmosphere for Republicans is certainly negative, and that casts a pall."
About 30,000 of the district's 117,000 voters in the Fairfax City, Vienna and Oakton areas have moved here since the last Virginia Senate election, and Devolites Davis is trying to persuade them that she's not like downstate Republicans who win elections by emphasizing guns, gays and God. She says she wants to keep the state and religion far apart, give gay people all the legal benefits of marriage without the label itself, and let localities ban guns from schools, libraries and recreation centers. The real divide in the state, she contends, is not between R and D, but between NoVa and RoVa: Northern Virginia and the rest of the state.
"What I have become over time, being a mom and having a kid who's been in trouble, is that I don't see easy answers anymore," she says. "I'm not motivated by ideology but by pragmatism. I've gotten to know gays and lesbians, and I see them as individuals and I see that nothing is black and white. Everything's gray."
Petersen rolls his eyes at his opponent's purported moderation and attributes it to her declining standing in the polls. "Once their numbers start going south, they become bipartisan," quips the lifelong Fairfax City resident who served two terms in the General Assembly before a losing bid to be lieutenant governor.
In an era when party identification is weaker than ever before, Petersen argues that this election is very much about party. "There's going to be a change in leadership in this state," he tells voters at a Mantua Civic Association debate. "Are we going to be part of that change? Don't let people from downstate tell you you're not a real Virginian. We are the Virginia experience."
Devolites Davis's retort to that applause line is to argue that a senior Republican wields more power than a freshman Democrat, which makes some sense.
Unless, that is, the Democrats take back control of the Senate, which they are four votes away from doing. In Richmond, party determines power.
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