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Deeds: A Rural Embrace of Northern Virginia

Creigh Deeds expects to have less money than any other candidate for governor of Virginia. In the Washington area, he's probably the least well-known of the bunch. In a state that is rapidly becoming more suburban, more Democratic and more affluent, he's the only candidate from a rural, Republican, lower-income area.

These days, as the state senator scrambles to attract voters' attention ahead of June's Democratic primary, he spends many a night in an upstairs bedroom at a buddy's house in Oakton. There's even a brass plaque on the door that says, "Deeds' Bedroom."

But home is in rural Bath County, population 4,814 and shrinking. Bath, which is closer to Charleston, W.Va., and Greensboro, N.C., than it is to Washington, is where you'll find The Homestead, the grand resort in the Allegheny Mountains. Deeds lives a few miles upstream from a house his ancestors built in 1740. There is not a single traffic light in the entire county.

Deeds lives in the Virginia that drives, not the one clamoring for Metro to reach Tysons and Dulles. His 2002 Ford Explorer has 284,000 miles on it; he bought it in '04 when the odometer read 10,000.

But the candidate says that unlike many people in his part of the state, he gets the idea that Northern Virginia is the economic engine that drives the commonwealth, allowing it to afford good schools and top-shelf colleges.

"The last time Virginia's economy was tanking, eight or nine years ago, it was the building boom in Northern Virginia that pulled us out of it," he says.

Running against Democrats from Alexandria (longtime delegate Brian Moran) and McLean (former Democratic National Committee chief Terry McAuliffe), and potentially against a Republican who grew up in Fairfax County (Attorney General Bob McDonnell), Deeds says his story "will resonate. In a race with three Catholics, I'm the Presbyterian. The other three were born outside of Virginia; I'm the native."

Beyond biography, Deeds says he can sell Washington-area voters on the idea that he won't be yet another Virginia politician who sucks tax dollars out of Northern Virginia and delivers little in return.

"The power has shifted," he says. "Rural legislators ruled the roost for so long. But the idea that the power is still in the rural areas is nonsense. Most of the state is suburbia now. It's like 'Of Mice and Men,' where you have this big mentally handicapped guy who didn't realize all the power he really had. Fairfax has 14 percent of Virginia's population but pays 28 percent of the state's income tax."

Of course, all candidates have to make sympathetic noises toward Northern Virginia as its voters play an ever more decisive role in statewide elections. But Deeds says he's taking the next step, teaching the rest of the state that the Washington suburbs pay for a disproportionate share of the state's services.

"I tell my constituents, if you aren't willing to help Northern Virginia now, how are they going to want to help you later?" For example, he says, the formulas that govern how road and school money gets distributed must be changed.

Deeds, who contends that he will not be outflanked as "the most progressive candidate in this race," argues for increasing public investment in colleges, energy research and green technology -- even in this economy. In his fast-talking, fact-spewing style, Deeds barely pauses for breath when he says that, no, he will never make a no-tax-increase pledge.

"You only get one opportunity -- this is a four-year job," he says. "We've gone on the cheap in higher education for years. This [energy] research is going to take place; the only question is where, and if we want a future with good-paying jobs, we want that research to happen here. You can't win competing for low-end jobs."

Already he is being dismissed as the spoiler in the race, the candidate who might prevent Moran from collecting the anti-McAuliffe vote, but Deeds is unapologetic. He is aiming his fire at the guy whose candidacy promises to turn Virginia's election into a national referendum on President Obama, the economy and the prospects for a resurgent Republican Party.

"There's some folks out there who think they can just stroll into Virginia without knowing about how this government works," he says. That would be McAuliffe, the Mr. Moneybags who has turned his nationally admired fundraising machine into a cannon shooting dollars into the governor's race. "Somebody has boned him up on his facts about the number of hours people waste commuting, but that doesn't mean he knows where the restroom is on the third floor of the Capitol."

Deeds has spent 17 years in the Richmond legislature. He is the only candidate who decided to keep his day job rather than campaign full time. He is the only one not likely to be able to afford TV time in the Washington area. He is breathtakingly earnest, even more so than Gov. Tim Kaine. He has a rural twang and an urban pace. He is a man in a hurry, crisscrossing the state, trying to make up in miles for what he lacks in dollars.

"There's no way I can keep up with those two," he says of McAuliffe and Moran. "If this race is about money, I lose."

First in a series on Virginia's candidates for governor.

By Marc Fisher |  February 1, 2009; 10:09 AM ET
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